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Equality and Diversity

February 28th, 2012

Reporting transgender issues: Constraints of language and understanding

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Equality and Diversity

February 28th, 2012

Reporting transgender issues: Constraints of language and understanding

0 comments

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Transgender issues often tend to be ignored and marginalised within the popular LGBT culture and understanding. Is it because transgender issues are very different from lesbian, gay and bisexual issues? Asiya Islam analyses the recent mainstream reporting of the case of the ‘youngest transgender person in the UK’ to explore where the hesitation lies.

This article has been published collaboratively by LSE Equality and Diversity and LSE Engenderings blogs to mark LGBT History Month.

© Flickr user PhotoComiX

Recently, a five year old child became the youngest NHS recognised transgender person in the UK. Born a boy, Zach Avery, now called Zachy, was diagnosed with Gender Identity Disorder at 3-4 years of age. Zachy’s mother initially thought Zachy’s claim to wanting to be a girl to be a passing stage. However, it got serious with Zachy trying to cut off his penis. Zachy’s mother says, “I would love to have my son back but I want him to be happy.” Zachy’s school has also been very supportive.

So far, so good. However, it gets a bit disconcerting where Zachy’s mother explains the situation as such: “He just wants to be like a little girl and he’s very happy with his long blonde hair, pink and red bedroom and a wardrobe full of girls clothes.” Zachy’s mother also said her son used to be a ‘normal’ little boy who loved Thomas the Tank Engine, but suddenly at the end of 2010, he decided he wanted to live as a girl.

The Huffington Post reported it in these terms: “Little Zach was just three when he began refusing to live as a boy, instead choosing to wear pink dresses and ribbons in his long, blonde hair – because he has Gender Identity Disorder (GID).”

What’s worrying about these statements is firstly, the continued use of the male pronoun ‘he’ for Zachy and secondly, the horrible but very common assumption that little boys like blue train engines and little girls like dolls with pink dresses.

While both Zachy’s parents and the Huffington Post are making an attempt to be supportive of Zachy, they seem quite constrained by language. They would not want to call Zachy an ‘it’ but neither do they seem to be willing or able to adapt their language to Zachy’s preferences. While they are accepting of Zachy’s preference to be a girl, they seemed to have given little thought to language that may contribute to the development of Zachy’s identity. There is, of course, the question of whether there is anything ‘wrong’ in referring to someone who wants to live as a girl as ‘he’. This is however, often called ‘pronoun disrespect’ in the context of transgender rights.

What is more worrying is that stereotyping seems to be a necessary evil when talking about or reporting transgender issues. Huffington Post’s statement that Zach chose to wear pink dresses and ribbons because he has Gender Identity Disorder is quite telling. As is Zachy’s mother’s statement that before he started dressing in girls’ clothes, he was a normal boy who liked Thomas the Tank Engine.

Should it be worrying if a young boy prefers wearing pink or if a young girl likes playing with cars? Are these stereotypes and ideas of gender normalcy making it more difficult for young people to come to terms with their gender and sexual identities by rigidifying them? And, more importantly, are these issues in some way part of adult transgender identities as well?

The concept of ‘passing’ remains quite central to transgender identities though it was refreshing to see transgender people taking different stances on it in Channel4’s series ‘My Transsexual Summer’. One of the participants (Donna) on the show expressed that she loved being recognised as transgender and did not want to be seen as or ‘pass’ as a woman.

Why is it then that whenever mainstream media reports on transgender issues, the expression and explanation is more often than not in terms of what ‘normal’ boys and girls or men and women do?

At the other end of the spectrum, going by the Daily Mail’s coverage of this case, which is, to be frank, bordering on aggressive transphobic, there is much more to worry about than just the issues mentioned above. The Daily Mail’s Paul Bracchi claims that this ‘condition’ (‘this’ being Gender Identity Disorder) did not even exist 20 years ago and is of the belief that gender identity clinics are wasting taxpayers’ money. This view seems to be coming straight from the ‘there were no gay people 50 years ago’ school of thought.

What needs to be recognised is that people can feel detached from and even antagonistic to their bodies. This recognition needs to come with the simultaneous understanding that such a detachment or antagonism does not always need to be defined or justified in terms of gender stereotypes. Neither does it need to be necessarily pathologised or ‘treated’.

Such stereotyping often ends up reaffirming gender identities that transgenderism seeks to subvert. Gender identities are variable, though they are not often recognised as such. Further, many transgender people don’t even see a need to undergo sex-change operations to reaffirm their gender identity. The transgender rights movement vouches for the freedom to accept such gender and sexual variability without attaching stigma to it.

February is marked as LGBT History Month in the UK. The commonly used acronym ‘LGBT’ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender. However, both popular culture and popular practice often tend to ignore the ‘T’ for transgender. The confusion and lack of understanding transgender issues are often mired in can only be addressed by encouraging more dialogue on transgenderism.

Asiya Islam graduated with a Masters in Gender, Media and Culture from the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2010. She is a feminist blogger (www.whyamiafeminist.blogspot.com) and is currently working as Equality and Diversity Assistant at LSE.

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Equality and Diversity

Posted In: Gender | Sexual orientation | Transgender

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